Early in my career I didn’t set out to be a manager. Like most people, I considered moving into a supervisory or managerial position the natural next step in being able to earn more money, gain responsibility, and add valuable experience to my resume. Obviously I knew there was a difference between being a manager and an individual contributor, but I didn’t fully understand and appreciate the difference in the type of work I would be doing day in and day out.
Boy, I wish I had known.
Not that it would have changed the arc of my career path, but I would have performed better and developed faster as a leader if I had better understood the nature of managerial work. There is a big difference between managing people and managing tasks, activities, or projects. Drawing from Henry Mintzberg’s The Nature of Managerial Work, here’s six characteristics of the life of a manager. If you’re considering the pursuit of a leadership position, or even if you’re a newly promoted manager, understanding these characteristics will help you form the right mindset and approach to what it means to be a manager.
1. Managers work hard, often at an unrelenting pace – A manager’s work never seems to be done. They often arrive early, leave late, and even lunch seems to be used for meetings and the opportunity to connect with others. Working across global time zones and the pervasiveness of technology in our lives means it’s easy for managers to always be “on” and connected to work.
2. The work is characterized by brevity, variety, and fragmentation – There’s no pattern to a manager’s work. It can be discontinuous and random, and the significance of the activities in a single day can range from serious (disciplining or terminating someone) to trivial (scheduling the next office potluck). Research has shown that most manager’s activities are completed in less than 9 minutes and only 10% of the activities take more than an hour. Meetings, emails, voicemails, reports, performance management, coaching, making decisions…the list goes on and on.
No matter what managers are doing,
they are plagued by what they might do
and what they must do.
3. Work can be an activity trap – Managers often become expert firefighters, always reacting to the latest emergency or hot topic. They work in a stimulus-response environment that encourages them to prefer live action rather than quiet reflection. This causes managers to become adaptive information manipulators rather than reflective, future-oriented planners, an essential skill to master in order to lead teams, other managers, and the organization.
4. Meeting, meetings, and more meetings – Like it or not, managers spend an enormous amount of time in meetings for a variety of purposes. Meetings are used for ceremony, strategy making, and negotiation. They are often necessary for coordinating activities, people, and resources, and are often the primary way for getting work done through other people. Even more important than the formal meetings are the “hallway meetings” that managers conduct to negotiate, lobby, and align opinions of other colleagues.
5. Managers are “boundary” people – Managers are responsible for building relationships with not only their team, but also other levels of management, other groups in the company, and outsiders. They have to manage a complex set of relationships and sometimes spend as much as 30%-50% of their time with outsiders, 30%-50% with team members and other groups in the company dealing with requests, information exchanges, and making strategy, and often less than 10% with their own manager.
6. Managers often have little control over the use of their time – Managers have less autonomy than they think they have. Some studies have shown that managers spend as much as 50% of their time in a reactive mode, and in my experience, there have been days where it felt like 100%! Some days it feels like you are a slave to your schedule. Yet managers do have a lot of control when you consider it is often their decisions that define how their time, and the time of others, will be committed, and that they can use obligatory activities in their workday for more than one purpose (e.g. scheduled meetings can be used for negotiation, gathering information, coaching, giving feedback, etc.).
I’m not trying to scare anyone away from being a leader, but it’s wise to count the cost before you jump into a supervisory or managerial role. Being a manager requires a different skill set than what it takes to be an expert, high-performer in your role as an individual contributor. But if you do decide to take the plunge, there can be a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction in helping other people achieve goals and higher levels of performance than they would have achieved without your help.
So, do you really want to be a manager?